Tom Barton, PhD: ACS Presidential Candidate
By Alan Marnett on September 5th, 2012
Today we share our recent interview with Dr. Tom Barton, candidate for President of the American Chemical Society in which he discusses his most memorable moment in the lab and where he sees the future of science in America. This is a follow-up to yesterday’s interview with the other nominee, Luis Echegoyen, PhD.
Tom Barton at a glance
- Years in academia: 45
- Years in industry: 0
- Years in government: 0 (but 18 years as Director of a DOE national laboratory)
- Most memorable event in the lab: First synthesis of a silabenzene
- Most memorable event outside of the lab (science-related): When friends(?) hired a stripper to attend my undergraduate class of organic chemistry.
BenchFly: What do you see happening in ACS/Science/USA/World that compelled you to run for president? What’s your vision for improving the current situation?
Barton: There was no one single thing that “compelled” me to accept the invitation to stand for ACS President, other perhaps than having just retired I only now have the time to give to what I believe is properly a full-time position. I suppose if I have to pick only a single thing it would be the deplorable state of U.S. K-12 science education. I am a strong believer in significantly increasing the rigor of U.S. science education (yes, that includes longer school years!) and enhancing the quality of teaching and teachers (yes, greater selectivity and greater pay). The ACS should be a leader in an intersocietal effort in this arena. It will not be easy, but our country cannot afford for it not to happen.
We elect our nation’s president to 4-year terms to provide stability and give the leader time to implement their ideas, since change generally happens slowly. ACS presidents, on the other hand, serve for a year. Is the continual turnover at an organization as large as the ACS the best format for the organization and it’s members?
In an organization like the ACS, the shorter the tenure of the term, the more likely that the president will serve only as a figurehead, which is not appealing to me. Thus, I would probably argue for doubling the term. Of course the possibility of getting stuck with a turkey for two years is not attractive, but I believe that the current filtering process pretty much eliminates that possibility. However, the issue of term length is not something that I plan to give any attention as ACS president, as there are many more deserving issues to which I would lend my efforts.
Given the term, how do you balance your vision for the society against what is reasonable to accomplish within a year?
It is wrong to view the job as one of a single year, as I would begin designing, organizing my ideas and bouncing them off people during the year of president-elect. To a large extent this job is one of being a spokesman for chemistry. I plan to carry the message of chemistry as an essential enabling science wherever I can find a willing ear. I have considerable experience in promoting scientific enterprises to legislative committees, economic-development groups, public service groups, etc., and am confident that I can make a significant difference in the time available.
“Innovation” is a popular buzzword these days – what does it mean to you in the context of science and the laboratory?
Today that word is almost exclusively being used as a partner with “entrepreneurship” and refers to novel science that can be taken out of the lab and into the commercial world. I am a strong believer that this traditional strength of America is our best hope for building the new employment base to replace that which has been outsourced. The ACS already realizes this and is currently working hard to make a difference.
Technology, globalization, economics and a host of other factors will undoubtedly result in significant changes in the way science is performed, shared and even funded over the next 20 years. What do you think is the single most important change that needs to be made, and how do you see the “new” system working in 20 years?
I am sorely tempted to respond, “I don’t know.” as there so many things that can happen in twenty years. I’ll restrict my answer to my own country as it is the office of president of the American Chemical Society that I seek. Here I see a nation that is far more technically literate than today, and a nation that learned how to be welcoming and friendly to industry without sacrificing core values. If my vision is wrong, we are in serious trouble.
For many postdocs and graduate students, ACS dues come out of an already tight personal budget. Why is it important they continue to support the ACS and how will their support of the society directly impact their lives as scientists?
As a graduate student and as a postdoc I was proud to be a member of the ACS. Simply being a member allowed me to make a statement as to my pride in my forthcoming profession. However, as I attended ACS meetings and subscribed to ACS journals, I could easily make the argument that membership actually saved me money. Today the ACS does so much more for members than back in my 1960s, such as informative webinars, a wide variety of employment services, a host of more focused journals etc., that to me, membership is a no-brainer.
If elected, what’s one promise you can make to research scientists that you can guarantee you’ll fulfill as ACS president?
Gee! Why did you restrict this question to “research” scientists? That’s easy, in that I would be a tireless worker to gain adequate research funding. This of course is not going to be simple in the forthcoming days of budget slashing. It will require convincing the powers-that-be that funding science is an investment which has long been demonstrated to be highly successful. However, one heck of a lot of our members are not research scientists, having taken a variety of professional paths to utilize their chemical training. So I would pledge to all our membership that I would seriously listen to the concerns and desires of all corners of our society, and not only elite sectors.